Attenborough and the Sea Dragon

Synopsis: Sir David Attenborough investigates the discovery of a 200 million year old Ichthyosaur on the Jurassic Coast in southern England.
58 min

The remains of a dragon

have just been discovered

in the cliffs of Dorset on the

south-east coast of England...

one that has been hidden in the

rocks for 200 million years.

It was an enormous marine

reptile that ruled the seas

at the same time as the

dinosaurs ruled the land.

Scientifically, it's called an ichthyosaur.

Since Jurassic times,

its fossilized bones have been

locked away in these cliffs.

But now we have a chance to

reveal it and its story.

Lots and lots of bone in there.

The bones are so well preserved,

it may be able to give us

new insights into the lives of

these remarkable creatures.

Together with a team of scientists,

we will reconstruct the skeleton and

compare it to animals alive today.

We'll try to understand how it looked.

We have actual preservation of

the skin of our ichthyosaur.

How extraordinary!

And how it survived in the open ocean.

Could this be a completely

new species of ichthyosaur?

Our search for evidence will lead us

into an intriguing forensic

investigation into how it died.

I think you're looking at a 200

million year old murder mystery.

Solving that mystery will throw

light on the extraordinary world

in the Jurassic seas that once

existed just off our shores.

The story of this extraordinary dragon

starts here in Dorset on the

south coast of England,

one of the most important

geological sites in the world...

the Jurassic Coast.

It stretches for almost 100

miles from Devon to Dorset.

And it was here that the early geologists

first collected evidence that

once the world was ruled

by monstrous reptiles, quite unlike

anything alive on Earth today.

Evidence of creatures that

existed all that time ago

can still be found on these beaches.

Fossil collectors have been coming

here for literally centuries

and these rapidly eroding

cliffs are providing them

with a continuous supply of

exciting things to find.

I started looking for

fossils when I was a boy

and I've never lost the

feeling of excitement

and anticipation of what

one might discover.

The commonest fossils here are

coiled shells called ammonites

and you can find them all over the place.

There's one here on this boulder.

You can see the whorls there,

but it's mostly been worn away by the sea.

But sometimes if you're lucky,

you can find nodules like this

and if you look at them,

you can see there's the edge there

of an ammonite and if I hit it...

If I put on protective glasses

and I hit it, it should...


How about that?


What a find!

Ammonites, in fact, are

quite common on this beach,

but every now and again,

something truly rare

and spectacular is found here

and quite often by this man...

one of the most skilled

fossil hunters I know.

Chris Moore has been collecting

fossils here for more than 30 years.

Recently, he came across a boulder

which he thought might

contain something unusual.

Back in his workshop,

he exposed a mosaic of small,

beautifully preserved bones

which he knew straight

away were the front fins,

the paddles, of an ichthyosaur.

But they were unlike any

he had ever seen before.

I still collect fossils.

I even have the remains of an ichthyosaur...

a small one of a kind

that's relatively common.

This was collected by Chris

about ten years ago in Dorset.

I never found anything

as beautiful as this.

It's got jaws and it's got

teeth and it's got paddles.

And Dorset was the very first place

where they found a really complete

skeleton of one of these creatures.

This is a picture of it,

published for the very first time in 1814.

People thought it was some kind

of monster, but what was it?

They thought it was a kind of cross

between a reptile and a fish

so they called it an ichthyosaur

- A fish lizard or sea dragon.

Since that time, many fossil

fragments of ichthyosaurs

have been discovered on the Jurassic Coast.

But complete skeletons are very rare.

The particular one that

Chris has just found

is significantly different from any

that's ever been found here before.

It's not easy to get to the

beach where it was discovered.

At high tide, the only

way to do so is by boat.

I asked Chris where the rest of

the skeleton might still lie.

It's in the very top limestone bed

where the cliffs are at the lowest point.

It's got about two metres on top of clay

and we'll have to clear this material off

till we get to the limestone bed.

It' a lot of hard work.

It's a lot of digging, yeah, and

also we have to do it, really,

before the winter turns again

and the weather gets bad

because there's a chance

that the next landslip

will just push it off onto

the beach and destroy it.

In Jurassic times, sea

covered all this area.

On its floor, sediments

washed down from the land

turned into layers of shales and limestone.

The land rose, the sea retreated

and now in the rocks,

you can find the remains of the creatures

that once lived in those ancient waters.

As well as the remains of ammonites,

there are the bones of fish,

such as sharks.

But the top predators at this time

were reptiles - ichthyosaurs.

They dominated the seas for

more than 150 million years.

After getting permission to dig,

the team clamber down the

cliff to the particular layer

where the rest of our ichthyosaur

skeleton should be lying.

I'm going to need at least another metre,

cos I need to drop down to the next bit.

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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